When the debate over legalizing cannabis in Washington State was raging back in 2012, one of the opponents’ main concerns was that decriminalizing weed would lead to an increase in its use by teens.
While cannabis policy is a fast-changing state of flux, early indications are that—not only here in Washington State but nationally—increased access to marijuana is leading to declines in negative outcomes such as abuse or dependency. The next few years will provide a better idea of developing trends, but we’re hopeful that legalization will continue to have positive effects on health care, public policy and the criminal justice system.
Numbers Don’t Lie
As far as teen marijuana use goes, the most recent data from the Center for Disease Control is positive: As reported in the Washington Post and elsewhere, an increase in access to marijuana has not led an increase in its abuse. What’s more, the declines in both abuse and dependence were most dramatic in teens and young adults.
Does this mean that more teens are using cannabis, but using it responsibly? Apparently not: Cannabis legalization in Washington State hasn’t led to a noticeable increase in its use by teenagers.
Opponents of legalization warn that the expected drop in cannabis prices over the next few years, coupled with its increased visibility and public acceptance, will lead to an increase in teen use. That hasn’t yet been borne out, but we’re keeping a keen eye on data as it emerges.
Marijuana’s Effect on the Brain of a Teenager
Keeping teens away from cannabis is more than a legal issue, it’s a health and well-being concern as well. Many researchers and clinicians warn that cannabis has serious negative effects on teenagers’ developing brains. The risks are magnified by the fact that, developmentally, teens may be drawn to a greater impulse towards risk-taking, one heightened by the intense peer pressure adolescents often face.
It may be coincidence, but the decrease in cannabis abuse by teens correlates with the overall decline in tobacco use observed over several decades now. As of 2016, cigarette use by teenagers was at historic lows.
Broader Trends in Marijuana
Even more encouraging, the statistically flat or declining teen marijuana use isn’t limited to Washington State. In Colorado, which voted to legalize all cannabis in the same year, teen use has dropped even more dramatically while adult use has increased. This multi-state trend would appear to validate the theories of legalization advocates, who feel that maintaining an above-ground, well-regulated industry is the best way to keep control over access to minors.
Again, cannabis policy is in its infancy, and it’s too early to make broad predictions based on a few years of data. But for the moment, there are strong indications that decriminalization is having a positive effect on teens. By and large, they’re choosing to wait longer before trying cannabis, and when they do, they’re showing fewer signs of dependence and abuse. And that’s good news for all of us as we go about our mission: making access to cannabis safe, responsible, and fun.